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In Vino Veritas

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I

She was nothing if not a smart drinker. Alternating each drink with a full glass of water would keep her hydrated, which would make tomorrow morning easier no matter how plastered she got. The water went down cool and soothing.

"Another?" Jamie asked, clearing her empty glass.

"Yes. Thanks."

She'd already handed her car keys over; she wasn't irresponsible. Jamie would cut her off at some point, but she intended to get thoroughly wasted long before that happened.

Weeknights were always mellow here. A handful of other patrons were scattered around the low-lit room, their voices subdued, and soft jazz music piped through the speakers above the bar.

"Donna."

And that was the end of any peace she might find. The gravelly voice behind her was unmistakable but she didn't answer. There were too many cutting remarks on the tip of her tongue and she was sober enough to know she'd regret saying any of them.

Al silently settled himself on the barstool to her right. Even from two feet away the stench of cigar smoke that, as always, saturated his hair and clothing accosted her senses. Donna finished her water just as her fresh vodka tonic arrived. Jamie refilled her water and set a cocktail napkin on the bar in front of Al.

"Hey, Al. Nice to see you. Ginger ale?" she asked, already filling a glass for him.

"Yeah, thanks, Jamie."

Donna could feel Al's eyes on her but she refused to turn to him, keeping him in her peripheral vision only while taking long pulls on her third drink. He was hard to miss anyway in that ridiculous bright red suit.

Jamie served him his ginger ale – and her car keys, which Al pocketed without a word.

An hour earlier she'd been choking on her fury. One drink had dulled the edges of it. One more had pushed it down to a place where the burning of it was almost quenched. But Al's untimely arrival had cut through her buzz and brought the rage and grief right back to the surface.

She gripped her drink in her left hand, dug the nails of her right into her thigh. She polished off the vodka tonic and set down the glass, barely controlling the urge to slam it on the bar.

"Donna, let me take you home."

Home was the last place she wanted to go. The house was more desolate than ever. Her heart grew too heavy at the thought of sleeping alone in that big empty bed for one more night.

"Come on, we'll go in my car then I'll get a cab back here to pick up your car."

She finally spoke to him. "You should've told me."

"Huh?"

Donna turned and studied his expression. He had no idea what was wrong.

"Told you what?"

"Never mind," she huffed.

Jamie glanced her way and Donna gestured to her empty glass.

"How many is that?"

Donna glowered into the glass, biting back her retort that it was none of his business.

"You gonna stay here all night?"

"Maybe." She sounded like a sulking teenager but she didn't care.

Just in time Jamie returned with her new drink and cleared away the empty one.

"What should I have told you about?"

She took a sip of the fresh vodka tonic.

"It's obviously bothering you," Al pressed.

"Sammy Jo."

She could sense him squirm beside her.

"Oh," he said on an exhale after a long time.

They sipped their drinks in silence then. Any further detailed conversation about Sammy Jo would have to wait and he knew it. There was no way to discuss her without referring to leaping at some point, which made the bar off-limits.

II

Al wasn't the only target of her anger, or even the true target, and it really wasn't fair to take it out on him. But Sam wasn't here. He hadn't been here in a long time and the hollow ache deep inside of her told her that he never would be again. Instead Sammy Jo had appeared in his place, a child of Sam's that wasn't hers. But then, she couldn't have children. She and Sam had stopped trying after she'd had her fourth miscarriage.

Did he even know about her? Or had he forgotten his own daughter too?

What could be more of a betrayal than Sam having a child with another woman? And was it really if he couldn't remember doing it, if he couldn't remember her? The day he'd returned to her for a few precious hours he'd asked if he'd ever done anything to hurt her and she'd told him she never felt that he betrayed their love. Was that the truth? He was home and they were together, making love, for the first time in four years. It wasn't the time for holding onto all the painful things. She'd been ready to let it go and rejoiced in their reunion.

But he didn't have a child with another woman yet.

She hadn't known that he'd have to leap again.

Sammy Jo Fuller was one of the younger project scientists who'd come to the attention of the higher-ups recently. Donna welcomed even the smallest spark of hope wherever it turned up, so she'd been looking forward to meeting the brilliant young woman who'd come up with a promising new theory on how to bring her husband home.

The thin sliver of white at the front of Sammy Jo's sandy hair immediately caught and held Donna's attention and she knew. She'd never seen that unique feature on anyone but Sam. Sammy Jo's eye color was different but as soon as Donna made the connection she saw Sam's expression in them. Then she recalled why the name Fuller had seemed familiar.

There had been not one but three leaps that revolved around a family named Fuller. With a breaking heart Donna understood that Sam loved that woman Abigail more than anything in the world to return to her so many times.

Abigail Fuller never married the man Sam had leaped into when Sammy Jo was conceived, nor had she married anyone else, so Sammy Jo had her mother's surname. Donna found no record of a father in the data she retrieved from Ziggy. When Sammy Jo was born Sam was only thirteen. Before those leaps she hadn't even existed.

What else changed around them because of Sam's leaping, without anyone even realizing it? Anyone except Al of course, who was aware of everything courtesy of his neural link with Sam, though he wouldn't admit it out loud.

There was a day, not long after Sam first leaped, when Al stepped out of the imaging chamber and stared at her like she was an uninvited stranger he'd come home to find sitting in his living room. She didn't think about that moment too often. A chill crept up her spine and across her scalp whenever she did.

Donna shivered again now and pulled her sweater tighter around her. That particular leap – a leap she identified only as 'Sam's third leap' – had been a disaster at the project. One fuse after another blew as she and Gooshie tried to work with Ziggy to get information and run scenarios. In the aftermath Donna suspected the hybrid computer had been bypassing the main system all along and feeding the data to Al alone, through the hand-link.

Those three or four days had been harrowing. Committee members were onsite snooping around, and she and Gooshie assumed Ziggy's odd behavior was a reaction to their presence. Tension hung thickly over the control room and Al got fired in the middle of the leap, for feeding personal information to Sam he said; less than twenty-four hours later he was back as if nothing had happened. To this day she hadn't been able to learn anything, not even so much as the date or place of that leap, no matter how much she cajoled Ziggy.

Once more that eerie iciness passed through her, like someone had walked over her grave. She gulped down the rest of her vodka tonic then signaled Jamie for another refill.

~~~~~~~

It seemed she was more of a lightweight than she'd originally thought. Or maybe it was just that she hadn't eaten.

Fortunately Al was there to stop her from falling on her face when she rose from the barstool after Jamie cut her off for the night. He guided her outside and deposited her in the passenger seat of her car, no doubt worried she'd throw up in his fancy red hot rod.

They didn't speak during the drive home. As they sped through the New Mexico desert her spirits slowly plummeted. By the time Al pulled into her driveway she felt more desolate than she'd ever been in her life.

Her heart twisted in her chest as she crossed over the threshold into the empty, cavernous house and flipped on the lights. Al had his arm around her waist to support her. When he led her into the living room, past the baby grand piano that had been silent for five years – she'd stopped bothering to keep it tuned – she burst into tears.

Al eased her down onto the sofa and sat beside her. As he reached around to embrace her she leaned in, buried her head in his chest, and wept.

III

Donna screwed up her face in disgust when Al returned from the kitchen carrying a tray with two glasses of orange juice and a plate of toast and set it down on the coffee table in front of her.

"Not exactly my idea of a chaser, Al."

With a light smile he said, "For vodka? It's perfect. Besides, Vitamin C is a good antidote to a hangover. I'll be right back."

He disappeared somewhere in the direction of the bedrooms. Minutes later he came back with a blanket and wrapped it around her. She smiled wanly as he sat beside her.

"Isn't Tina waiting for you tonight?"

His voice was gruff when he answered. "No, she isn't waiting for me."

Al and Tina's off-again on-again relationship was a constant source of gossip at the project. Actually the off-again phases weren't really off; Al and Tina were usually just taking a break from one another with other people. Tonight Al seemed very down about it though.

"I was hoping maybe you wouldn't have to know about Sammy Jo, Donna. I didn't want to hurt you."

"Does Sammy Jo know he's her father?"

He shrugged.

"Well, she'll probably figure it out soon if she hasn't already. She's obviously got Sam's IQ." Donna frowned. "I wouldn't have even met her if she hadn't come up with her theory."

He glanced surreptitiously at her. "That's the bright side of it, I guess. Maybe she had to be—if she can bring him home—"

"Sam's not coming home. Not ever."

She was almost sorry she'd said it when she saw his stricken expression. More tears threatened and she leaned over and plucked a tissue out of the box he'd brought out for her.

"You don't know that, Donna. We're doing everything—"

"He's not coming back." She repeated it, emphasizing each word, and dabbed angrily at her overflowing eyes. "Think about it. Every time he completes a leap we hope that it's the last and it never is. It never will be. You know him as well as I do, Al."

Maybe more.

She crumpled the tissue into a tight ball and tossed it onto the coffee table.

"It doesn't matter what he promised me, especially when he doesn't even remember that promise. He won't stop as long as someone needs help and there will always be someone who needs help."

Al leaned in closer. "You just say the word and I'll remind him about you, Donna. I've only kept the knowledge of you from him because you insisted."

Donna shook her head. "He'll still keep going."

"No. He loves you too much. If he knew about you, if he remembered, he would find a way to get back to you."

"I know you mean well, Al. You've been a good friend to me too and God knows you didn't have to be. You had every right to hate me—"

His brow furrowed. "What are you talking about?"

Donna turned away. "It doesn't matter."

"If this is about Sam and me switching places—"

She couldn't look at him.

"Aw, Donna, you're only human."

He was far too forgiving. She wrapped her arms around herself, pulling the blanket tighter, and finally raised her eyes to meet his again.

"You might've died because of me. Because I couldn't bear to lose Sam again."

Al didn't say anything for a while. Donna fidgeted in the heavy silence and watched him sip his juice. He finally set his glass down and leaned back, rubbing the nape of his neck.

"Do you remember the leap to 1969 San Diego?"

She snorted. "Who could forget it? You ordered everyone except Gooshie out of the control room for the entire leap."

He'd also apparently sworn Gooshie to secrecy on pain of his life. Gooshie never uttered a word afterward.

"That's the one," Al said with a wince. "A man might've died because of me. Because I wanted Sam to change something for me that he wasn't there to change."

Donna uncrossed her arms and stared at him, her curiosity piqued. It didn't take a genius or Verbena Beeks' degrees in psychiatry to figure out that Al was having a meltdown then. He'd alternated between sullen and barking at everybody, kept all personnel out of the control room except Gooshie, and looked like absolute hell for days. How he'd managed to keep Bena out was beyond her, since as the project's head psychiatrist Bena had full authority to kick his butt off duty and into her office, whatever his military rank.

"I wanted him to fix things for me and Beth."

Her mouth formed an 'O' but no sound came out. Sam had once told her that Al was M.I.A. in Vietnam for several years. That he'd been presumed dead – at least until a photo of him as a P.O.W. showed up in Life Magazine – and his first wife Beth had him officially declared as such then remarried. Donna had no idea that Sam had landed in the middle of that part of Al's life. According to Ziggy's databanks the leap was about saving an undercover officer who'd been gunned down in the original history.

"We all do and say things we regret later when something important to us is at stake. I don't hold it against you."

"Maybe you should."

She studied Al's pained expression. Everything in it told her she'd be doing the same thing to Sam as Beth had done to him if she left. She hadn't said she wanted to leave, but she'd thought about it and Al had probably already guessed that.

Donna twisted the wedding band around her finger. She felt for him, but she understood why Beth had moved on, why she'd had to. True Al had eventually returned, but he wasn't lost in time. Al of all people had to understand that there was only so long a person could wait hopelessly, day in and day out, for someone who won't ever come back.

But she wasn't going yet.

"If I'd had a say in the matter I would've told Sam to stay with you instead of leaping back to 1945 to save me."

That floored her.

"Is that what you wanted?" she exclaimed when she'd recovered from the shock.

"The important thing is I don't want you to fret about that night anymore." He gestured to her untouched juice and toast. "Have some of that. You'll feel better."

The toast tasted like ash in her mouth and another lump filled her throat. With difficulty she swallowed the bite she'd taken and dropped the rest of the slice back onto the plate. She pulled another tissue out of the box as the tears started again.

Al moved closer and slipped a comforting arm around her shoulder. The cigar scent was stronger with him so close but she didn't mind it now. She leaned against him and broke down again.

When she could speak she said miserably, "Sam must've loved Sammy Jo's mother a lot to return to her so many times. He hasn't…"

She didn't finish.

"I don't know if I would say that." His voice was soft and gentle. "Besides, I don't think it was all Sam. His mind and feelings were merged with the leapee's. And it was more obsession than real love."

"Semantics, Al, and you're not fooling me for a minute."

"Donna, you have twice the looks and twice the quality of Abigail. Sam didn't change things so she—" Al stopped short and his body stiffened. Donna shifted and looked up at him, startled.

"So she what?"

"What I mean is, Sam helped Abigail and moved on. He didn't stay."

Donna observed him through narrowed eyes. He'd been about to slip over something and caught himself in time. She decided not to press him now. One day soon, when she was sober and clear-minded – and he was off his guard – she'd corner him about it.

She settled back against his shoulder and he draped his arm around her again.

"But he wanted to."

"She was a needy little girl when he first leaped as her father. When he leaped into her lover a decade later…I guess Sammy Jo was just meant to be born. A daughter with Sam's IQ and the one person who might be able to get him home."

"Something I could never give him. We stopped trying…" Her throat and chest ached as she spoke of it. "I had so many miscarriages. Sam must've told you, you're his best friend. I know he was disappointed in me…"

Al's arm tightened around her. "Never. Don't even think that. Those were losses for him too, but Sam was worried about you and your health. He was never disappointed in you."

"Sam really wanted children and I…I thought I did. But in some ways I'm relieved. I'm not sure it's what I truly wanted. The project takes up so much time and effort, and Sam would've just left a child behind too when he leaped."

He gently stroked her back and Donna closed her eyes, comforted somewhat by the sensation. She let the remaining tears spill down her cheeks.

"At least you can see him and talk to him," she said bitterly. "I can't even do that. Not that it would matter when I couldn't touch him anyway. Maybe that would be worse. I don't think I could bear to be that close to him and not be able to touch him."

"I know what you mean. Being with Beth and not being able to touch her, her not knowing I was there…it was painful."

"I'm sorry." She opened her eyes, reached up and stroked his cheek with a fingertip. "You're a good man, Al."

Al snorted. "My ex-wives would never say that."

"Maybe they just forgot about that side of you."

He bent down and she felt his lips lightly brush her forehead. "You're a beautiful woman, Donna. Don't ever sell yourself short."

"Thank you," Donna murmured, not knowing what else to say. She shifted and Al drew his arm away as she moved to the edge of her seat. "I should probably try to get some sleep. I'm going to have a splitting headache tomorrow."

"Don't worry. I know the perfect cure for a hangover. I'll mix it up in the morning when you get up."

"Thanks, Al. I'm all right now. You don't have to watch over me all night. You probably want to go home."

"Nah, I'm glad to keep you company. Anyway, my home's empty too." Their eyes met and held for a minute. "I'll be right here if you need anything."

Donna laughed. "We have a guest bedroom, you know. It'll be more comfortable than this old sofa."

"Better if I stay out here." He gestured to the juice again. "Drink some of that before you go to bed. I'm telling you, Vitamin C does the trick."

She grinned and obediently reached for the glass. The juice was quenching and she felt a little better when she'd finished it.

"Are you sure you don't want me to remind Sam about you?" he asked.

Donna set the empty glass on the table and shook her head. "There are so many people out there who need his help and this project is his mission. How can I put myself, one small person, over all of them, or take away the thing that makes Sam happiest?"

Al regarded her with affection and admiration. "Sam's a lucky man."

She reached out and stroked his face once more. He clasped her hand in his, brought it to his lips and kissed it tenderly, then guided it back down to her side. She rose from the sofa, steadier on her feet now, and he stood with her.

"You know where we keep everything. Help yourself to whatever bedding you need."

Donna gathered up her blanket and began to move toward the bedroom, pausing when he called her back.

"I'll respect your wishes about telling Sam. But I want you to know that you're important too. And maybe, if Sammy Jo can get that theory of hers to work, it won't have to be an either-or choice anymore."

She turned and nodded to him with a small smile. It was a possibility.

"Maybe it won't. Goodnight, Al."